'The Girl': Quiet & Observant Character Becomes Audience Surrogate

by Dan Erdman
The Girl Blanca Engström
The Girl.

In rural Sweden, a young girl's parents jet off to Africa on a charity trip, leaving the child (Blanca Engström) in the care of an inattentive aunt. The Girl – that's how she's listed in the credits, her name is never revealed – quickly tires of her caretaker's cycle of wild parties in the evening and hangovers in the morning, and contrives a way to send her off on a trip with an old boyfriend. The Girl is a quiet, observant type, and, though she has friends in a skinny farm boy and a chubby teenage girl who lives in a nearby town, she quickly adapts to life on her own.

Fredrik Edfeldt's Flickan / The Girl, Honorable Mention for Best Debut Film at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, is fairly adept at that neat trick of seeming to be plotless, as Karin Arrhenius' screenplay lets its characters, conflicts, and dramatic logic develop in fits and starts. Those are interspersed among several very short scenes – sometime just single shots – of the title character doing the sort of thing kids do when left completely alone: watch TV, jump on the bed, lay around on the floor, examine mundane objects as though they were germs on a slide.

A great deal of The Girl is simply observation, with the Girl acting as audience surrogate – one of Edfeldt's recurring tricks is to suddenly begin a new scene with a shot of her looking at something off-screen, only later cutting to what she sees and establishing the location and characters.

But a lot of childhood is observation, and The Girl generally does a good job of showing the world without the direction or shape that adulthood and personhood imposes on those observations. Well, usually; there's a nasty joke at the expense of The Girl's chubby friend late in the film that's not only gratuitous in its own right, but telegraphs the filmmaker's contempt a little too clearly.

Anyhow, I think the refusal to name the protagonist stems from that impulse – not to infuse our lead urchin with some sort of universal or mythologizing force, but to take her as a phenomenon unto herself, without even the social branding of an identity.

This sort of approach calls for an earthy and naturalistic look and the Guldbagge (the Swedish Oscar)-winning cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema (Let the Right One In) delivers an impressively fresh take on that style. Exterior shots are bathed in natural (or natural-looking, anyway) light, while scenes in The Girl's house play out in deceptively complex patchworks of shadow – most of the light coming from either a window or small lamp in some corner, and with only Engström's pale Scandinavian fleshtones to pick her out of some daringly dim lighting schemes.

In one scene, while discussing her deepest fears, The Girl reveals that she is “afraid of going blind and not being able to see.” The Girl takes enough care with its visual style to give that otherwise throwaway line some weight.

© Dan Erdman.

FLICKAN / THE GIRL (2009). Dir.: Fredrik Edfeldt. Cast: Blanca Engström, Tova Magnusson-Norling, Emma Wigfeldt, Michelle Vistam, Vidar Fors. Scr.: Karin Arrhenius.

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